CIFF 2011: Good Bye (Bé omid é didar, 2011)

Director: Mohammad Rasoulof

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Looking at the phonetic Persian title of Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film, Bé omid é didar, I guessed that Good Bye was losing something in translation. Thanks to an Iranian friend of mine, I learned that the Persian title literally translates as “hope to see you again.” Since Rasoulof has been sentenced to serve a one-year prison term and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime,” the more literal translation offers a hopeful note about his release. However, given the trajectory of the film itself, I really don’t blame the translators for the more hopelessly final message they decided upon for the English version.

It would be a mistake not to see Rasoulof’s situation in the plight of his protagonist Noora (Leyla Zareh), a lawyer banned from practicing because of her civil rights activities and drawing increasingly sinister attention from the police. But Noora’s problems are compounded by her gender: women are not allowed to drive, cannot get medical procedures or check into a hotel without a male family member’s consent, and cannot take charge of simple transactions, like getting a security deposit back, without being harassed or cheated. Noora needs to carry out all these activities because she cannot take life in Iran anymore and is trying to find a means of escape.

Noora has found a fixer who advises his clients the best way to accomplish their goal, and withholds their visa if they don’t pay up everything they owe him. Noora has been advised to get pregnant, which she has achieved before the start of the film, and to be sure the baby is born out of the country. The fixer has arranged for her to give a paper at an international conference, going so far as to have the paper written for her.

The first sign of trouble is a premonition Noora has that there is something wrong with her pregnancy. After telling the fixer’s imperious secretary that she wants an abortion, the secretary scolds her that her boss has chosen the right way for her to escape and that she must go through with it. After a while, her fears are overcome by her growing attachment to her unborn daughter, nourished by ultrasound images and conversations with her husband, who has been stripped of his livelihood as a journalist and sent to do construction work in a southern desert.

Rasoulof’s tense film slowly narrows the ground on which Noora stands. One day, two policemen show up at her apartment and ask if she has a satellite receiver on her television. She answers yes, but that it doesn’t work. In one of the many small but telling touches Rasoulof supplies, one officer enters her home after putting plastic bags over his shoes to keep from tracking in dirt, while the other stands in the hall and writes her a ticket. How did they know she had the device? Soon thereafter, she gets into the narrow elevator of her building, and is crowded by two policemen who take her for a ride up and down the elevator shaft. They tell her they need to search her home, and once inside it, never let her out of their sight, even when her visiting mother returns to the apartment and makes them tea.

More bad news awaits Noora, including that her husband is having doubts about leaving Iran. So determined is Noora to escape her oppression that she tells him she will go anyway and let her daughter give her a new life. Shortly before her departure, she meets a friend of her husband who tries to dissuade her from leaving on his behalf. She tells him, “If one feels like a foreigner in one’s one country, it is better to leave and be a foreigner in a foreign country.” All he says before he walks off is “See you later.” What are the odds that he will?

There are many obstacles to Noora’s plan, but by far the worst is not knowing whom to trust. She has to work with a number of people—including her husband’s former mistress—to tend to her pregnancy and her plan of escape. Some of them are kind, some are hostile, others are all business, but any of them could betray her. When her husband has a change of heart, we know he could rat her out to keep her with him. Evidence of husbands and wives informing on each other in other repressive societies, such as East Germany, is rampant. But Noora’s behavior is more like an animal trying to gnaw its own leg off to be free of a trap; she has no choice.

Word is that the production of Good Bye was very fraught, and that much of the shooting and assembly was done clandestinely. Given the scrutiny Rasoulof must have been under, as evidenced by the meticulousness of the outrages he shows Noora enduring, this must be true. Yet the film is beautifully composed, with an emphasis on right angles that showcase how boxed in Noora is and subtly noirish lighting that suggests a person trapped by fate.

One interesting detail is a pet turtle Noora keeps in a small aquarium. When the aquarium starts to leak, she puts it on a tray. Tiring of emptying the water from the tray, she fills it with more water and puts the turtle on it. We watch the turtle struggle to get over the side as we hear Noora doing something in the background. Ah, she has been fashioning a barrier of newspaper to tape around the tray to keep her pet from escaping. Yet one day, it isn’t there, and a search of the living room yields nothing. On a realistic level, the turtle could have gotten down a hole, or it could have been taken, perhaps by the someone who informed the police about Noora’s satellite receiver. On a metaphorical level, the turtle’s existence in its faulty home is a mirror of Noora’s existence in her toxic country. Its puzzling disappearance is a foreboding of what might happen to Noora, perhaps even suggesting that she will be one of the dissidents who, we learn during the film, is hanged in secret.

These are extremely desperate times for filmmakers in Iran. Good Bye is an incredible act of courage and an artistic triumph by one of Iran’s most gifted and persecuted directors. Show your support for his art and voice by seeing Good Bye and bearing witness to the suffering underway today.

Good Bye will screen Tuesday, October 11, 3:15 p.m., Thursday, October 13, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 2:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

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King of Devil’s Island: Naturalistic and suspenseful look at life in an island detention center for boys and their rebellion against their harsh treatment. (Norway/France)

Cinema Komunisto: This entertaining and eye-opening documentary provides a loving look at the little-known national cinema of Yugoslavia and the film fanatic who made it happen: Marshall Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president for life. (Serbia)

Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    6th/10/2011 to 3:29 pm

    I truly want to see this and feel I have to. I hope it comes to the AFI soon so that I can. Beautiful write-up.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2011 to 3:32 pm

    It is a remarkable film, both in its tragic story and its incredibly accomplished execution. The attention to detail, the use of sound, the claustrophobia. Rasoulof is a new director to me, but he is clearly in the pantheon of the best Iranian directors and one I hope will be free soon to continue making such great films.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    10th/10/2011 to 9:15 pm

    Of course we know of the greatness of Kiarostami, Majidi, Farrokhzad and Panahi, and how the latter was jailed, stirring the blood of those here at FoF. So I am thrilled to hear of Rasoulof’s pre-eminence in an exciting if always threatened cinema. Both the review and the subject it relates here are first-rate.

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